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culture

Historicist: Stone Free

That time Jimi Hendrix mistook heroin for Bromo Seltzer and got arrested in Toronto.

“We want you to forget about today, about yesterday, and about tomorrow,” the singer proclaimed to the crowd of 10,000 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “Tonight we’re gonna create a whole new world,” he added as the band roared in “Fire,” their traditional opening number.

By the time he played Toronto on May 3, 1969, Jimi Hendrix was anxious for change. Already one of the most popular rock acts, Hendrix wanted to broaden his musical horizons, creating tension with his bandmates, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, and his manager. Even before the tour started that spring, with stops in Philadelphia, Memphis, Dallas, and Oakland among others prior to Toronto, rumours were circulating that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was on the verge of breaking up, and that Hendrix himself was going to quit rock and become a hermit. The growing conflict was evident to concertgoers.

“Hendrix is caught in a two-way struggle,” reviewer Ritchie Yorke wrote in the Globe and Mail (May 5, 1969), “he is anxious to explore new musical areas; yet he cannot go too far without distressing those tastes which want the Hendrix of Hey Joe and Foxy Lady.” In addition to passionate versions of those songs, the 70-minute set also included extended improvisations of original blues compositions like “Hear My Train A Comin’” and “Room Full of Mirrors.” The result of Hendrix’s effort to satisfy his own artistic imagination and the audience’s pop desires, Yorke added, did not make for “a wildly successful show.”

But if the music was becoming more challenging, Hendrix’s appearance was comfortingly familiar to the young fans. Dressed as always like a psychedelic gypsy, he wore a purple vest, and brightly-coloured kerchiefs tied around his head, his left arm, and his knee, with a silver medallion dangling at his belt.

Jack Batten of the Toronto Star praised Hendrix’s sexualized stage presence. “Sex, rock and blues dissolve in the man,” he wrote on May 5, 1969, “and when he sings and plays his guitar, he drenches his audiences in waves of powerful, washing sensuality.” And he raved that, as culmination of the concert’s energy, Hendrix “raised his guitar in the air, drew it up to his mouth and then…played it with his teeth.”

At no time during the concert—which survives as an easy-to-acquire bootleg recording—did the the singer mention that day’s events. Just hours before taking the stage, he’d been arrested for drug possession, charges which would weigh on his mind for the remainder of the year.

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 3, Hendrix arrived at Toronto International Airport aboard a flight from Detroit, where he’d given a concert. At the customs station, the singer was inspected by senior officer Mervin Wilson. Mixed in with the shampoo, hair-spray, and vitamins in Hendrix’s flight bag, Wilson discovered three packets containing white powder (and another empty packet) in a glass jar along with a metal tube containing a sticky brown residue inside—later confirmed to be heroin and hashish respectively.

Jimi Hendrix’s mug shot from the May 3, 1969, arrest in Toronto from Wikimedia Commons.

“Oh, no, I don’t really know what it is,” Hendrix responded to questioning. “Someone must have put it in my bag.” After further questioning in an airport office, Hendrix was arrested for illegal possession of narcotics by Metro police detective Harry Midgley. He was, however, released on $10,000 bail in time for that evening’s concert at Maple Leaf Gardens.

He was to make his first court appearance on Monday, May 5, at Old City Hall. At 10 a.m. his name was called but he failed to come forward. Twice more he was beckoned but didn’t appear. Finally his lawyer, John O’Driscoll, reported to the magistrate, lawyers and about 30 teenagers who’d skipped school to fill the spectator benches in the courtroom, that Hendrix was in New York state—his tour had continued on to Syracuse—and he was expected on a flight that day. When he finally arrived at 2 p.m., he appeared before Judge Fred Hayes for all of three minutes—long enough to be remanded for a preliminary hearing on June 19.

He showed up early on June 19, and was snapped by the Star, sitting on the Old City Hall stairs, waiting to appear before provincial judge Robert Taylor. The press obsessed over Hendrix’s attire, reporting it in copious detail each time he appeared in court. On this occasion, one reported related, he wore “tight-topped bell-bottom trousers that appeared to be of black velvet, topped by an open-front ruffled black silk shirt, matching black vest and blue boots” and he had “a rainbow-colored scarf around the waist.”

After hearing testimony from Wilson and Midgley, Judge Taylor committed the 26-year-old singer to a jury trial scheduled for December. The charges, two counts of illegal possession of narcotics, carried a maximum sentence of seven years in prison for each count.

The real possibility of prison hung over Hendrix like a spectre for the next six months, a threat to his career and the cause of much brooding and rumination.

The drama added to the already-tumultuous year. The band broke up as everyone expected. They finished in suitably epic fashion: narrowly escaping on June 29, as their closing rendition of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” at the Denver Pop Festival gave way to a riot and police firing tear gas into the crowd.

Hendrix also faced pressure from his manager, Michael Jeffrey, to temper his ambitions and stick with his already-successful musical formula. Rumours, which persist to this day, suggested that Jeffrey himself had planted the drugs in Hendrix’s luggage in order to gain leverage over his increasingly rebellious rock star.

Nevertheless, with intentions of assembling a larger, more versatile band, Hendrix retreated to rehearsals and jam sessions in upstate New York preparing to headline the seminal festival in Woodstock in mid-August. Apart from some solo appearances on The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show and at Woodstock, Hendrix didn’t perform publicly between the Experience’s break-up and a major two-night concert at the Fillmore East Auditorium to ring in the New Year. Hendrix’s handlers later admitted that concert bookers shied away from booking engagements until after the outcome of his Toronto trial.

Coverage in the Globe and Mail (December 9, 1969)

Hendrix was back in Toronto on December 8—with lawyer O’Driscoll, his manager, and entourage—for a trial that would last three days, presided over by county court judge Joseph Kelly. The singer sported a blue blazer, ascot tie, and flared trousers. Journalists noted the similarly attired youths in the audience.

Mervin Wilson testified about his inspection of Hendrix at the airport, and the singer’s disbelief upon the custom officer’s discovery of substances in his baggage. Constable W.J. Matheson then added that the RCMP’s analysis showed that there were three packets of heroin in the glass jar and trace amounts of hashish on the metal tube. It seemed open and shut.

In cross examination, however, O’Driscoll began casting doubt about the ownership of the narcotics. First, Wilson agreed with the defence lawyer that Hendrix had been a conspicuous sight at the airport, drawing attention to himself with his loud clothing. Then, Wilson admitted that the flight bag contained none of the paraphernalia usually associated with drug use—spoons, cigarette papers, or pipes. And Matheson confirmed that the police at the airport had found no needle marks on the musician’s arms.

On December 9, Hendrix took the stand. He told the court that he’d never been convicted of any criminal offence—a statement which glossed over the youthful circumstances leading to his stint in the army and an incident in Sweden in January 1968 when Hendrix, often violently erratic when drinking to excess, destroyed his hotel room.

Coverage from the Toronto Star (December 9, 1969)

Then, under questioning from O’Driscoll, Hendrix admitted his past experimentation with drugs including marijuana, hashish, LSD, and cocaine. “I feel I’ve outgrown it,” he said of his prior drug use, but maintained that he’d never used heroin. “I guess the fans expect us to use drugs,” he added under cross examination by Crown counsel John Malone.

Building the case that the drugs weren’t his, Hendrix detailed the rock star lifestyle of one-night-stand concerts, and travel surrounded by record company reps, hangers-on, and ever-present fans. “We give interviews and hold press conferences and receptions in hotel rooms,” he explained to the jury. “We find fans in the halls, in the rooms and on the streets.”

The latter, he testified, showered the group with gifts ranging from teddy bears to the flamboyant rings and pendants he wore on-stage, as well as hash cookies and cakes. He said they’d even received LSD blotters sent through the mail. “It is only gracious for the group to keep gifts that fans provide,” the Globe and Mail paraphrased Hendrix’s reasoning.

Furthermore, the defence was able to pinpoint the origin of the drugs to a gathering in Hendrix’s Los Angeles hotel room on May 1. The scene at the Beverly Rodeo Hotel was hectic with associates coming in and out, music journalists lingering—despite Hendrix maintaining a media silence and unwilling to give his first interview that year until July—and fans and hangers-on lounging around waiting for something to happen. The telephone kept screaming and, worn out and feeling ill, Hendrix was about to kick everybody out of his room.

When he mentioned his upset stomach, the court heard, a girl of about 17 stepped forward, offering the glass jar with packets inside. “Maybe this will make you feel better,” she chirped. Thinking it was Bromo Seltzer, he said, Hendrix shoved it into his flight bag without even looking at it. Sharon Lawrence, a young reporter who covered music, television, and film for United Press International, took the stand to confirm each detail of Hendrix’s story.

On December 10, after closing statements, the jury was sequestered at 1 p.m. But journalists knew it would be a long time until a verdict was rendered when the jurors requested coffee in the late afternoon.

Hendrix, his manager, and others milled around Old City Hall for hours before finally stepping out for Chinese food. In a private interview that evening, Hendrix explained to the Star’s Marilyn Dunlop how someone can outgrow drugs. Sensitive people like him, he said, sometimes discover drugs as a way to feel better about themselves.

“I met a lot of people,” he said of his growing success. “I saw a lot of good things and a lot of bad things,” he said, hinting that the bad things were the result of drugs. “Look what could have happened to me—even when I don’t use them anymore.” Now, he professed, his self-belief was a result of people not drugs, waving a hand towards his manager and handlers. “These are the people who give me my belief in myself.”

Yet he resisted Dunlop’s urge to turn him into a role model and his arrest and trial into a moral lesson for kids. “To each his own,” he replied when asked to warn kids of the dangers of drugs. “But just don’t blow it. Don’t blow it.”

Toronto Star (December 11, 1969)

After more than eight hours of deliberation, the jury returned. Hendrix, dressed in a dark pinstripe suit and open-collar purple shirt to reveal a pendant around his neck, stared expressionless as he awaited his fate. As the all-male jury announced its acquittal, the courtroom—crowded with young people—erupted into applause.

Outside the courtroom, a jubilant Hendrix hosted an impromptu news conference. “Canada has given me the best Christmas present I ever had,” he exclaimed in relief, holding up two fingers in a 1960s peace sign.

Stepping outside into the wet December snow—with an admiring young woman on either arm, as a Star photographer captured—Hendrix hustled to a waiting limousine, heading to a movie with his entourage.

Other sources consulted: the Globe and Mail (May 2 & 5, June 20, July 21, and December 9, 10 & 11); and the Toronto Star (May 5 & 6, June 19 & 20, and December 8, 9, 10 & 11).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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